Calista Corp. puts CEO on leave, appoints interim chief

Elizabeth Bluemink

The regional Native corporation for Western Alaska announced Wednesday that it has placed its longtime chief executive on leave while the corporation investigates sexual harassment claims made against him by an employee.

Calista Corp.'s announcement came several weeks after the president of Solstice Advertising, a Calista subsidiary, filed a workplace harassment complaint against Calista chief executive Matthew Nicolai in state Superior Court.

The Solstice president, Emily Davenport, is on administrative leave as well, though Calista did not clarify when she left. Calista said her administrative leave is unrelated to her civil case against Nicolai.

Anchorage-based Calista represents more than 13,000 shareholders and encompasses 56 villages in Western Alaska. The company is heavily involved in government contracting and owns rural newspapers around Alaska. It also owns a massive gold deposit called Donlin located roughly 175 miles upriver of Bethel that could become one of the state's largest mines if built.

Solstice, formed in 2005, bills itself as the first Alaska Native-owned ad agency in the Pacific Northwest. It works for commercial and government clients in Alaska and elsewhere.

Davenport grew up in Juneau and moved to Anchorage after working at a Chicago advertising agency. She joined Solstice in January 2008. In her lawsuit, Davenport, 28, says that she and Nicolai began an intimate relationship in September 2008, a month after she was made president. She says she ended the relationship in May 2009 because of his "growing possessiveness."

She alleges that Nicolai wanted to continue the relationship and began acting like a stalker, following her around town, calling her, e-mailing her and surreptitiously taking pictures of her. She said he touched her and made inappropriate comments in the workplace in front of other people.

She alleged that he used his position at Calista to hurt her professionally: canceling acquisitions of other ad firms she had arranged; taking away her ability to hire and fire; falsely accusing her of lying to Calista attorneys; and canceling an open house event she had prepared as a business opportunity for Solstice.

"Most importantly, Matthew Nicolai caused delays stretching over several months that prevented Emily from obtaining a written employment contract with Solstice or (Calista)," according to her Aug. 11 legal complaint.

Davenport requests damages and a jury trial.

Nicolai's attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment in the case and Nicolai has not yet responded in court to Davenport's lawsuit.

Calista and Solstice were not named in Davenport's complaint and Calista said that its investigation into Davenport's accusations will be conducted by a third party.

"Calista and Solstice have personnel policies that prohibit harassment in the workplace, and Calista's board and executive management wishes to reaffirm our commitment to providing a harassment-free workplace," Calista said Wednesday.

Nicolai, 57, has worked for Calista since 1975. He has been the president and chief executive since 1995 and also has served on many boards in Anchorage, including the Chamber of Commerce, the Alaska Salvation Army and the Alaska Federation of Natives. Calista paid him or he accrued $702,960 in salary, benefits and bonuses in 2008, the most recent figure available in company filings to state regulators.

The Calista board appointed Andrew Guy, who served as the company's executive vice president and general counsel, as the interim chief executive, during a special meeting late last week. Guy has been with Calista for many years and held his vice president/general counsel position since 1996, according to the company.

Calista also appointed Lincoln Garrick as acting president of Solstice while Davenport is on leave. Garrick has worked for Solstice for about two years and has been its director of strategy while also serving as Calista's corporate spokesman.

PDF: Calista Corp. statement